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IN-DEPTH: Health experts push for people to get their flu shot as COVID-19 cases overwhelm hospitals

Posted at 6:11 PM, Sep 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-16 19:11:44-04

Every day, we hear something about the COVID-19 vaccine. But now there’s another important shot on the horizon- the flu vaccine.

In a time where COVID-19 cases are dominating the state, some might be asking how threatening is the flu?

Do I really need my flu shot?

This is not the first time we've had to tackle both the influenza virus and SARS-CoV-2 virus. Last year, we saw few cases of the flu.

“The coronavirus basically took all the space for illness, so we didn't see much flu," explained Dr. Tim Martindale with the Martindale Family Medicine Clinic. "Also people were being so careful to wash their hands, wear a mask, stay out of public settings last year during the middle of the heavy coronavirus. That's the same things you do to avoid getting the flu.”

This year is a bit different. Now, we have COVID-19 vaccines. But with those new vaccines has come vaccine hesitancy. Experts say it's something they've seen for awhile with the flu shot.

“We always see hesitancy for the flu shot," said Kelly Craine, public information officer with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. "That's just standard. We're always talking and encouraging and promoting flu shots. So we're kind of... in public health, we're used to the hesitancy on vaccines, and we just really worked for that idea of giving you the true advice and then also making it easier for you to get that shot.”

Dr. Martindale worries that hesitancy can be dangerous.

“We think that coronavirus is probably going to be starting to taper down over the next month or two," he said. "The flu season lasts November through February, typically. So at the time that people start breathing a nice deep sigh of relief and saying yay, I don't have to worry about getting sick anymore because coronavirus has slowed down, that's when typically in January, February, flu hits hard. And if suddenly we're less careful and we're unprotected, there's a chance after all the weariness of the coronavirus, we’ll be hit hard by tough cases of the flu.”

Health professionals say the best way to protect yourself from the flu is to get the flu vaccine.

Pharmacies, public health districts and clinics are all starting to receive their shot shipments. While it may not feel like fall and flu season, they say now is the time to get your vaccine.

“We suggest you get the flu shot in September or October," said Dr. Martindale. "You need at least two weeks to get that vaccine in to get you protected. And the general feeling is that the first beginnings of the flu season are usually in November.”

“For the elderly, we feel like it's important to get it a little more timely," Dr. Martindale continued. "We try to get the flu shot in October, and that gives them about four or five months of coverage, which covers the flu season. For younger people, they could get it pretty much any time now or a little bit later, because most people that are younger have a longer immune response, which might last six to 12 months. So it should cover them through the flu season whether they get it immediately or later.”

It's especially important for children.

“We actually see that flu is far more harmful in younger children, and that is a concern," said Craine. "Children can get the flu shot, unlike the COVID shot. Children can get the flu shot, and they should get one every year because it affects children at great rates. As an adult, most of us can weather that storm with the flu, but children really have a difficult time with that.”

The White House says there's ways for schools to stop viruses in their tracks.

“The steps that the CDC have recommended, they certainly include masks but they include other mitigation measures that any school can take," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told 25 News. "Ensuring that there’s social distancing, ensuring that there’s proper ventilation, ensuring that, when possible, sometimes kids can eat lunch outside, make sure there’s fresh air in classrooms. There’s a lot of steps schools can take. Masking is certainly recommended by the CDC, but there’s additional steps that they’re recommending as well.”

But this year's most asked question - can you get the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as the influenza vaccine?

“This season more than ever, it's super important to get immunized for the flu and for COVID, and the great thing is you can get them both at the same time, if that's what you need," said Dr. Stephen Pont, medical director for the Center for Public Health Policy and Practice. "Similarly for kids, the COVID vaccine and influenza can also be given with other childhood immunizations. So if you're at your pediatrician visit, you can get all of that taken care of at the same time.”

It's not uncommon for people to skip the flu shot, but this year's shot is much more important. That tiny jab will have a big impact.

“Our hospitals are still dramatically strained from COVID right now," said Dr. Pont. "You have many parts of Texas that are reporting, you know, single digit intensive care unit beds available. So again, it’s more, more important now than ever to go out and get that vaccine so we don't swamp our hospitals with lots of cases of folks needing that care for influenza as well.”

You can receive your vaccine through your doctor’s office or pharmacy. If you have any questions or concerns, consult your health care provider.